The B.C. New Democratic Party has spent 12 years trying to shed the "tax and spend" label. Since its near-elimination by voters in the 2001 election after 10 years in power, the party has tried to earn back trust, one moderate step at a time.
But this week, B.C. voters again showed they are not ready to move on. The B.C. Liberals, even after the scandals of BC Rail and the ethnic-voter scheme, after the broken promises on balanced budgets, after the unpopular carbon tax and the harmonized sales tax, still mobilized voters to block the NDP.
The verdict delivered at the polls on Tuesday night stunned New Democrats who thought voters were ready to embrace them once again. Party leader Adrian Dix has retreated from the public eye to talk to his MLAs about how they blew this opportunity, and what to do next. When he reappears after the long weekend, the focus is likely to be on his political future as leader. New Democrats have turned on their leaders for less.
But the challenge ahead is bigger than that. If the party is not content to be forever the legislature's bridesmaid, it needs to address voters' perceptions about the NDP and what it stands for.
Changing the details is not enough. The party has offered up two different leaders, distanced itself from its labour roots, and in this election presented a platform with pretty much the same suite of tax measures as the B.C. Liberals. Yet their opponents effectively defined the brand: the party of big government, big unions, big spending, higher taxes and stifled economic development.
And the party faces challenges on a second front: Among progressive voters, the B.C. Greens took almost 17 per cent of the vote when the ballots were counted. The Greens now have a toehold in the legislature with MLA-elect Andrew Weaver. The NDP might want to look at what the federal Conservatives and Reformers had to do to gain power: Come up with a new vehicle that offers a tent big enough for New Democrats and Greens alike.
"If you can't win under these conditions, where can you win?" asked Max Cameron, director of the University of B.C.'s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions. "They have to renew, it's not just about leadership."
Premier Christy Clark, the B.C. Liberal leader, secured her job by laying out a simple agenda: "We say 'yes' to resource development." Mr. Cameron believes the seeds for a renewed NDP lie in an equally powerful counter-message. "This is a province that has never been smart about economic growth," he said. "This is a province that plunders its natural resources for wealth. It's not about improving productivity and economic diversity."
A clear economic vision that lays out a different path to economic prosperity might appeal to the spectrum of progressive voters in B.C. The combined NDP and Green support in this election almost equalled the sum of the turnout for the Liberals and Conservatives – a difference of about 27,000 voters. "Maybe they need a new generation of leaders," Mr. Cameron said. "But it has to be someone who can articulate an alternate vision."
Mr. Dix did not represent a new generation. The centre of power in the NDP, Mr. Dix and party president Moe Sihota, represented the NDP of the 1990s. It was difficult to tell a story of a new NDP.
Hamish Telford, head of the department of philosophy and politics at the University of the Fraser Valley, knew the NDP brand was damaged when he listened to a talk radio show during the campaign. "A caller said, 'the NDP want to tax us to death.' But their tax proposals were virtually identical to the Liberals. I don't know you can fix that brand problem with a simple name change, but that is their fundamental challenge."
Ms. Clark spent the better part of the past two years repairing her coalition of Liberals and Conservatives. The NDP responded to the Green threat only at mid-campaign. Mr. Telford's advice: "A broader conversation between like-minded parties might be in order here."